Gillyflowers, and the letter ‘g’

Gillyflowers—pronounced with a soft ‘g’—are clove-scented pinks, as popular now as 400 years ago. Their botanical name is Dianthus caryophyllus.

Caryophyllon is the word Pliny the Elder uses for the dried flower-bud of the clove-tree, caryophyllus. But later it comes to be used for the flower of the pink, and it goes through dozens of spellings in French, Spanish, Dutch and English. In Turner’s New Herbal (1551) it is gelover,  but he acknowledges also the folk usage of gelyfloure.

At that time—and by Shakespeare—July was pronounced to rhyme with truly: and so gillyflowers acquired the further folk name of Julyflowers—for they arrive in that month, along with apricots and cooling showers, as Sara Coleridge was later to point out.

The word itself raises the question of the letter ‘g’. Anyone can be baffled, native speakers included, by whether to pronounce a ‘g’ as hard or soft.

Take for example the noun gill, which is recorded in Chambers as a homonym with five separate meanings.

With a hard ‘g’ it can mean:

  • a fish’s organ for breathing in water;
  • a small ravine, or wooded glen, or brook.

With a soft ‘g’ it can mean:

  • ¼ of a pint;
  • a cart for carrying timber;
  • a girl, female ferret or policewoman.

There is a special pleasure that people enjoy by affectionately mocking their native tongue. Here in the west country, Somerset people sometimes amuse one another by exaggerating their dialect and its sounds; speakers of Plattdeutsch in northern Germany do the same. And writers do it, more subtly, of English in general. There are whispers of it in Jane Austen; it is often near the surface in Shakespeare; and a master practitioner of it is Lewis Carroll.  Through the Looking Glass, for instance, may have been written for a teenage girl, but it is a source of fun about the English language, seeming almost limitless, because every re-reading discloses something new.

Carroll seems to be making fun of the letter ‘g’ and its inconsistencies in the Jabberwocky poem, when the toves ‘did gyre and gimble in the wabe.’  Humpty Dumpty’s explanation makes clear how these two words are to be pronounced: gyre has a soft ‘g’, and gimble has a hard ‘g’.